A north Indian friend once remarked jovially, yet bluntly: “Catch a dog, kill it, roast it and eat it, and what you have is a Northeast delicacy.” I did not take that as an offence because I forgave his ignorance. What that friend and many others in the country do not know is that food from the Northeast is much more than just the imagined dog meat. Little do they know that food from the Northeast boasts exotic delicacies that are not a part of mainstream fare. But that ignorance does not grant one the legitimacy or the right to ridicule and conclude that whatever people in the Northeast eat be called “weird, strange”, or “unacceptable”. It is a shame that many in mainland India have never really tried to know or understand that the region, loosely termed as ‘Northeast’, is actually made up of eight states and each is unique and distinct in its own way.
The recent uproar over a ban on dog meat in Nagaland—which followed a similar order in Mizoram—is, to my mind, just one of the many examples of misconception and misunderstanding. The ban must be seen and examined strategically through the eyes of animal rights activists, who hailed it as a victory and a turning point and, through the eyes of Nagas, whose cultural practice is questioned by this decision. But what needs to be cleared first is that not all Nagas eat dog meat. Or, not all people from the Northeast eat dog meat. And for those who do, it is their prerogative and a personal choice. Naturally, some sections of Naga society frowned upon the decision, calling it an infringement on their personal space and belief.
First, let us uphold animal rights, which are a set of beliefs that animals too have the right to be free of oppression, confinement, use and abuse by humans. By this doctrine, it simply means that all animals, regardless of whether it is a dog or a lion, must never be used in experiments or bred for this and other human activities—riding them during marriages, say, or as mounts for that fancy game of polo. Restaurants, by this logic, shouldn’t be serving tandoori chicken. Since time immemorial, animals served a purpose in biological research and drug testing in laboratories. All that, in the light of this argument, is frightfully wrong and puts us in the wrong. And I shudder to think of the plight of the poor guinea pigs that are used in endless medical researches time and again, as if it is their sole purpose of existence.
But to stretch it to that level may not entirely serve human purpose. For, animals in many ways are there for the benefit of mankind. And there will always be a question about differing standards—why, indeed, are animals typically used and seen as food by the majority, like chicken, fish and mutton, have lesser rights than dogs?
So, in essence, animal rights activists are right in that context if their concern is purely on the ground that animals (dogs) must be treated with love and care. But that uproar must be extended for every animal that is thus used—be it chicken, duck etc.
On the other hand, there is a deep cultural context when we address food and food habits. They are shaped by many factors, as sociologist Deborah Lupton rightly wrote: “Food consumption habits are not simply tied to biological needs but serve to mark boundaries between social classes, geographic regions, nations, cultures, genders, life-cycle stages, religions and occupations, to distinguish rituals, traditions, festivals, seasons and times of day.”
Indeed, there are deep cultural context when it comes to animals and the Northeast. People in the region practised subsistence economy that barely fed their hungry bellies. Making it worse, they relied on shifting cultivation that yield enough not to starve. They were hunters, fishermen and gatherers—all rolled into one, and looked upon their environment for shelter and food. The rough terrain; harsh climatic conditions; impenetrably thick jungles went on to influence and define their diet and dietary habits. Pulses, something as basic to the rest of India, came to the region much later all because access was an issue. Cut to today, their food habits and choice cannot be put on a scanner and judged upon in isolation. “When we talk about food, we are, then, in the midst of a rich and complex mosaic of languages, grammars, narratives, discourses, and traditions, all of which are tightly intermeshed. In this binding, they overlap and even contradict each other,” as Angel F. Mendez Montoya explained in Theology of Food.
Since ancient times, dogs have been indispensible to humans all over the world, not just for the different communities of the Northeast, playing multiple roles. Not just as the faithful friend who accompanied them on their hunting or foraging trips. They also depended on the animal for sustenance, strange as it may sound to many. For instance, if you look at Manipur, among some communities the dog was used in exorcism rituals to cure illness, even madness. The blood of a dog was supposed to have curative effects, as found in folktales. Dogs were used as an offering to the spirits to cure all types of illnesses among the Chin Kuki Zomi people. Offering dog’s blood to the spirits as appeasement to cure madness was also a traditional practice. Some primitive rituals include the wearing of dog’s tail and teeth as amulets, as it was considered a shield against the dark forces of spirits. And its meat is considered potent and immunity building even to this day. It is no exception in Nagaland, where the life of Nagas has always been intertwined with dogs. Dogs are omnipresent in their life. In fact, a dog was responsible for the Nagas’ eternal loss of script. Legend has it that the handwritten script that was painstakingly written on an animal skin was carried away by a hungry dog. To this day, Nagas rely on Roman script; their tradition and knowledge have been transmitted down the generations orally.
It is therefore, with a different, layered context that we say that dog meat has been part of Naga cuisine for a long time. The intake of the meat is not entirely for indulgence and nourishment like, say, pork, beef or chicken. It was always with a belief that it would stimulate them and give them the much-needed physical power and vigour to climb mountains and walk on foot for miles into the jungle to gather food. Clearly, beyond the physiological function, there are unexplained cultural meanings and discourses surrounding the consumption of dog meat. Food habits are always products of socio-cultural and economic environment. And that holds true for the Nagas and many other communities in the Northeast.
If the ban on sale of dog meat, “both cooked and uncooked”, is with an intention to put an end to this cultural practice, the abrupt act does not seem like a long-term and a bankable solution. In fact, it does not also reflect a long-term policy that would steadfastly guide the Nagas—who have long evolved from a head-hunting tradition—to yet another milestone of shunning something their forefathers did and that questions their identity. If the intention was such, then what was needed was a more structured policy to introduce smooth behavioural change and awareness building. And a thoughtfully studied process wherein authorities include stakeholders like church leaders and youth influencers in it to yield a more positive result. As a friend rightly pointed out, this change must be gradual and has to come from within; mere changing laws may serve little purpose. Of course, the reverse impact may only push up prices and illegal trade.
Again, as far as the customary practice is concerned, it has to strike a fine balance with the doctrine that is put forth by animal rights activists. And the freedom of what one wants to eat must also strike an equally fine balance with public policy. The larger and more worrying issue is, just because what one community eats does not fall into the sensibility of certain section of society or, say, the majority, it may be absurd and rather insensitive to ban what is truly one’s question of identity. And how can the right of a goat or a chicken be lesser than that of a dog? That’s a tough question many need to ponder upon.
Hauzel is an independent journalist and founder of www.northeastodyssey.com and www.thenestories.com (Views expressed are personal)